The Myth of the Waterproof Shoe

Why Waterproof Shoes Don’t Work, Plus Five Foot-Care Tips for Hikers

Photo by Andrew Skurka

In wet conditions, such as those in the Wind River Range in July, wet feet are inevitable despite best efforts to avoid them. Even so-called "waterproof" footwear will be eventually overwhelmed.

If you’re backpacking in wet conditions—prolonged rain, dew-soaked grass, melting snow, un-bridged creek crossings, high humidity—your feet will get wet. And “waterproof” shoes just won’t cut it. There are two potential culprits for why your feet will get wet while wearing “waterproof” footwear: design flaws, and material flaws.

Design Flaws
First up: The Imperfect Seal. Water can either drip (such as during a rainstorm) or pour (such as when you’re fording a creek) into the opening where you put your foot. If you try to stop this by “shingling” your waterproof pants over the tops of your shoes (so the water runs down your pants, past the opening), you won’t be protected against creek crossings, and it gets uncomfortably hot in warm temperatures. And while shoes with integrated waterproof gaiters such as the La Sportiva Crossover GTX, I have not seen a gaiter that would truly keep the water out.

Material Flaws
The other reason that waterproof shoes fail is because they rely on imperfect materials. Some footwear is made of leather that has been treated with a coating, such as polyurethane. When new, this coating is completely waterproof—i.e. moisture cannot pass through it—and it will keep your feet dry from outside sources of moisture. However, it also traps perspiration inside the shoe, so your foot will bathe in its own sweat. Over time and with use the coating will break down and will no longer be waterproof. Do-it-yourself restorations are never as good or long-lasting as the factory coating.

The other way to build a “waterproof” a shoe is with a waterproof-breathable material such as Gore-Tex. My experience is that these fabrics are greatly overhyped, in terms of their actual performance versus the advertised claims. First, they are only marginally breathable—moisture does not pass through the fabric as easily as their diagrams suggest, so on warm or humid days you will definitely notice that perspiration becomes trapped inside the shoe. Second, the fabric’s waterproofing is rapidly degraded by dirt, sweat, body oils, and abrasion. It’s only a matter of time before moisture begins penetrating the fabric and wetting your foot.
The solution? Embrace wet feet.

Instead of trying to keep your feet try, I recommend learning how to minimize the effects of wet feet. I talk about foot care tips in my book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, some of which are listed below, and others of which are scattered throughout the book.

  • Before you leave camp, protect blister-prone areas with Leukotape (and if you notice a spot that’s just becoming irritated, protect this, too). Keep toenails short to keep blisters from forming beneath them, and keep them rounded so they don’t hurt your other toes or snag on your socks.
  • Wash your socks daily—inside out, no soap. Air out your feet at least once daily by taking off both your shoes and socks. And at night, wear a clean, dry, and warm pair to help your feet recover.
  • Care for your feet when they get wet
  • Only wear your trusted, proven footwear on long trips, and save new socks and shoes for low-risk outings. Orthotics, arch support, and toe socks can all help remedy a short-term problem.
  • If you have a blister, lance and drain it. Then, apply a donut-shaped pad to keep the pressure off, and cover with Leukotape.
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